Implications of Phenomenology on the Study of Religion

In the introduction to his Dimensions of the Sacred, Ninian Smart explains his methodological use of the term “focus” to describe the phenomenological object of religious practice and experience. Smart prefers to use the term “focus” instead of “the transcendent” or “ultimate reality” because “focus” has more to do with the perspective of the believer and less to do with questions of truth: “For a believer the focus is real, and we can accept this even if we do not want to say that it (or he or she) exists (Smart, 9).” Similarly, Smart distinguishes between “real” and “existent,” once again emphasizing the believer’s perspective: “I thus distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘existent’ as adjectives. The former I use, in this context, to refer to what is phenomenologically real in the experience of the believer. Whether the real in this sense exists is an altogether different question (Smart, 9).”

As implied by these methodological choices, Smart intends to steer clear of any philosophical evaluation of religious truth claims in his approach to the study of religion. Although the question of truth may be a legitimate one to ask, Smart deems this terrain to be an inherently dangerous one for the scientist to explore: “There are academic and institutional dangers here, I do not doubt (Smart, 18).” The often close association between religious studies and theology, and indeed the fact that the religious studies was born out of theology, presents of kind of reputation risk to religious studies insomuch as it could easily be seen as reverting back to theology if it asks too many of the wrong kinds of questions. For Smart, those who insist on avoiding the questions of truth “are often motivated by a suspicion of the way in which (Christian) theology has dominated and perhaps infected the field (Smart, 18).”

For Smart, the study of religion, if it is to be genuinely scientific, must first aim to understand religion from a strictly phenomenological perspective: “The descriptive task has a certain priority: unless we know what it is we are reflecting about, how can we reflect appropriately (Smart, 18)?” While Smart explicitly defines the priority for religious studies as the descriptive task, he implicitly suggests, through his presentation of the seven interrelated dimensions of religion, that this descriptive undertaking is both sizable and complex. Smart’s dimensional methodology seems to imply that scholars of religion will indeed have their hands full simply in dealing with the phenomenological aspects of religion. To the extent these scholars of religion take the descriptive agenda seriously, they may scarcely even be able to find the time to consider other matters at all.

But for Smart, the questions of truth cannot be ultimately avoided. While the body of Smart’s work is exclusively phenomenological, he does see a time and place for the philosophical examination of religious truth claims. Indeed, reflection “about the truth, value and relationship of the world’s worldviews” can be understood as the ultimate objective of religious studies: “It seems inevitable that some reflection will arise out of the study of religions and, more generally, of worldviews (Smart, 18-19).” The phenomenological data gathered by Smart and other scientists can therefore be understood as providing the necessary base for subsequent reflections within the philosophy of religion.

While the value of phenomenological analysis to the study of religion is undeniable, it might be argued than an over-emphasis on phenomenology can amount to reductionism. For instance, Smart adopts the premise in his analysis that secular worldviews such as nationalism are phenomenologically indistinguishable from religion. Thus, the categorical distinction between religion and secular worldviews is merely an artificial one intended to promote the idea of secularism itself: “Because religion is separated from secular worldviews, for instance, it is assumed that East Germany was a secular state; in fact Marxism functioned in that country much as a state religion, as Lutheranism once had (Smart, 2).” But if nationalism is really a form of religion, then what judgment does that imply about the nature of religion itself? If many things outside of what is traditionally understood as religion are deemed phenomenologically equivalent to it, then we are either saying that religion is a lot more prevalent in society than once imagined, or that in fact religion as a distinct category has no ontological meaning.

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